Tag Archives: David Cronenberg

Just Another Tricky Day

Disappearance at Clifton Hill

by Hope Madden

A seedy motel, a low-rent Sigfreid & Roy, the sketchy side of a tourist town during low season—Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a neo-noir told mainly in nostalgic colors, smoke and mirrors.

The setting for the mystery is the Rainbow Inn Motel, a dump just off the Niagara River gorge that’s seen better days, though it’s tough to imagine when those days might have been.

Abby (Tuppence Middleton – British much?) is home to complicate the fulfillment of her mother’s will, because that will involves selling the old Rainbow Inn to the town mogul who looks to raze Abby’s memories in favor of day-glo paint ball.

What is it she remembers, exactly? A fishing trip down in that gorge. A one-eyed boy. A kidnapping.

Shin mines all those wistful ideas about going home again as Abby begins sifting through sordid secrets, wealthy families, and the decay of the once wondrous world of her youth. Where will her sleuthing lead?

Aah, the untapped resources of your local public library. Is that a microfiche machine?!

Shin excels at nailing atmospherics. Tourist trap towns do feel seedier off-season, their sparsely populated amusements somehow sad. In Shin’s hands, the town, its near vacant fun house and caged tigers all conjure the notion of childhood perverted.

Magician’s trickery. Sleight of hand.

The delightfully dodgy Abby is the epitome of an unreliable narrator, although to Shin’s endless credit, we’re not asked to believe something she’s telling us. We are with her, step by step, as she convinces herself of something, which allows us—like Abby herself—to really hope she might actually be on to something.

There’s a fluidity to the way Shin and co-writer James Schultz unveil Abby’s own sketchiness, beginning with a barroom conversation/seduction. This is also where he begins to introduce a delicious stew of supporting characters, each one a little quirkier than the last.

Hannah Gross particularly impresses as Abby’s far more grounded sister Laure, but I was probably most excited about Walter.

When you think of David Cronenberg—and I think of him often—you don’t always consider his acting. But he does add a little something something to films. Here he charms as Walter, area historian and podcaster: “Remember, rate and review.”

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is not a flawless film, but it is deceptively competent. It’s fun and clever. Middleton’s clear eyed yet delusional Nancy Drew never ceases to be appealing.

And just when you think Shin and company have tidied up a little too quickly…smoke and mirrors, my friend.

Fright Club: Best Mutant Animal Horror

It would not surprise us if we saw a new wave of ecological horror in which our own mistreatment of the environment and our irresponsible handling of pharmaceutical progress creates flesh hungry critters, pissed off two-headed bears, opioid addicted tapeworms, whatever. Let’s prepare by looking over history’s forewarnings, shall we?

Here are our favorite mutant animal films—cautionary tales about big pharma, careless planet keeping and sex.

5. Shivers (They Came from Within) (1975)

In an upscale Montreal high rise, an epidemic is breaking out. A scientist has created an aphrodisiac in the form of a big, nasty slug. That slug, though, spreads wantonness throughout the high rise and threatens to overrun the city with its lusty ways.

Not Cronenberg’s best film, but this is his first feature length horror and it announces not only his arrival on the genre scene, but it predicts so many of the films to come. The film obsesses over human sexuality, social mores, the physical form, physical violation and infestation, medical science, conspiracy, and free will. He’d revisit all of these preoccupations throughout his career, most obviously in his very next feature film, 1978’s Rabid, which is weirdly similar in every way.

Shivers takes a zombie concept and uses it to pervert expectations. (See what we did there?) They’re not here to eat your brains, after all. It’s the first film where Cronenberg marries ideas of the repugnant with the pleasurable, medical monstrosity with human body. It would be several years before his skill with performances (or maybe casting) matched his other directorial talents, but Shivers is still a worthwhile, utterly bizarre pleasure.

4. Isolation (2005)

In 2016, writer/director/Irishman Billy O’Brien made an effective and lovely – yes, lovely – creature feature called I Am Not a Serial Killer. But about a decade earlier, he started down that path along a muddy, ruddy Irish roadside that wound ‘round to an out-of-the-way farm.

It’s the kind of a depressing, run-down spot that would catch nobody’s eye – which is exactly why it drew the attention of runaway lovers Jamie (Sean Harris) and Mary (a young Ruth Negga – wonderful as always). The solitude and remoteness also got noticed by a bio-genetics firm.

Down-on-his-luck Farmer Dan (John Lynch, melancholy perfection) has little choice but to allow some experimentation on his cows. He doesn’t really mind the required visits by veterinarian Orla (Essie Davis – hooray!).

But when one cow needs help delivering – genetic mutations, fetuses inside fetuses and teeth where no teeth belong. Nasty.

O’Brien and his truly outstanding cast create an oppressive, creepy, squeamish nightmare worth seeking out.

3. Black Sheep (2006)

Graphic and gory horror comedy seems to be the Kiwi trademark, no doubt a product of the popularity of native Lord of the Gastro-Intestinal-Splatter-Fest-Laugh-Riot, Peter Jackson.

First-time writer/director Jonathan King uses the isolation of a New Zealand sheep farm and the greedy evil of pharmaceutical research to create horror. He does it with a lot of humor and buckets full of blood. It works pretty well.

Evil brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has bred some genetically superior sheep while smart but sheep-phobic brother Harry (Nathan Meister) has been away. But the new sheep bite (a recurring problem with bio-genetically altered farm animals). Victims turn into, well, were-sheep. Of course they do.

The result is an endearing, often genuinely funny film. Cleverly written with performances strong enough to elevate it further, Black Sheep offers an enjoyable way to watch a would-be lamb chop get its revenge.

2. The Host (2006)
Visionary director Joon-ho Bong’s film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.

Said monster – let’s call him Steve Buscemi (the beast’s actual on-set nickname) – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted foodstand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.

What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Steve Buscemi, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.

1. The Fly (1986)

After a couple of interesting, if un-medical films, the great David Cronenberg made a triumphant return to the laboratory of the mad scientist in his most popular film to date.

But it’s not just Cronenberg’s disturbed genius for images and ideas that makes The Fly fly; it’s the performance he draws from Jeff Goldblum.

Goldblum is an absolute gift to this film, so endearing in his pre-Brundlefly nerdiness. He’s the picture’s heartbeat, and it’s more than the fact that we like his character so much. The actor also performs heroically under all those prosthetics.

He and Geena Davis make the perfect pair, with their matching height and mullets, and their onscreen chemistry does give the film a level of human drama traditionally lacking from the Cronenberg canon. Atop that, there’s the transformation scene in the bathroom – the fingernails, the pustules – all classic Cronenberg grotesquerie, and still difficult to watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BzwxJ-M_M0





Fright Club: Best Horror/Non-Horror Double Features

There’s always reason to be proud when one of he most established and respected directors decides to dabble in horror, and likewise, when one of our own makes it big in the mainstream. It put us in the mood for some double features: great directors, one horror movie, one non-horror movie. And the possibilities are endless. How about Scorsese’s Cape Fear/Taxi Driver? Or something a little more contemporary – maybe Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and Blue Ruin (if you’re feeling colorful)? Oh, what fun! Let’s get started!

5. Ben Wheatley: Kill List (2011)/ High Rise (2015)

Kill List
Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in this genre bender. Without ever losing its gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

High-Rise
Set inside a skyscraper in a gloriously retro London, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is a dystopia full of misanthropic humor.

Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates his own story of life inside the “grand social experiment” – a high rise where the higher the floor, the higher the tenant’s social status. Performances range from slyly understated (Hiddleston, Elizabeth Moss) to powerful (Sienna Miller, Luke Evans) to alarmingly hammy (James Purefoy), but each contributes entertainingly to this particular brand of dystopia. Still, the wicked humor and wild chaos will certainly keep your attention.

4. Peter Jackson: Dead Alive (1992) / Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Dead Alive
This film is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageous bloodbath. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), destiny, a Sumatran rat monkey, an overbearing mother, a prying uncle, and true love are bathed in gore in the Kiwi director’s last true horror flick – a film so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it.

Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.

 

Heavenly Creatures
Jackson’s first non-horror film still follows rather horrific circumstances – New Zealand’s infamous Parker-Hulme murder case. Even fans of the director’s work to this point couldn’t have suspected he (and writing partner/write Fran Walsh) had anything this elegant and fantastical in them.

Certainly, spellbinding performances from young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey didn’t hurt. Jackson and Walsh received their first Oscar noms for the screenplay in a film that eschews the trial, barely witnesses the crime, and focuses instead on the intense friendship that went horrifyingly wrong. It respects its source material and every person involved in the historical event, but it also understands the delirium of adolescence in a way few films do. Hobbits be damned, this is Jackson’s masterpiece.

3. David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981) / Eastern Promises (2007)

Scanners
The film that made Cronenberg an international name in the genre is about mind control – a very sloppy version of it – and that societal fear of being dominated by a stronger being. At its heart, this is another government conspiracy film wherein an agency foolishly believes they can harness an uncontrollable element for military purposes. Scanners is hardly the best of these (Alien is, FYI). But it’s gory fun nonetheless. What makes the effort undeniably Cronenberg (besides the exploding heads) is that connection between human tissue and technology.

The acting is silly, the technology is comically dated, and the computer nerd toward the end of the film inexplicably boasts a band aid on his face. But Michael Ironside is on fire and the movie ratchets up tension by keeping you wondering when the next head will explode.

Eastern Promises
In 2005, Cronenberg produced his most acclaimed and most mainstream film to date, A History of Violence. That success spawned more than an interest in non-genre fare, but also a fruitful collaboration with the underappreciated and versatile actor Viggo Mortensen.

Two years later, Mortensen would join an impeccable cast including Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Naomi Watts in what would be the Canadian auteur’s finest film. Eastern promises is Cronenberg’s characteristically off kilter, visceral take on the mafia movie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWC-ECjNqxo

2. Stanley Kubrick: The Shining (1980)/ 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Shining
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That freaky guy in the bear suit? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

2001: A Space Odyssey

After a less than enthusiastic reception from both audiences and critics in 1968, 2001 persevered, establishing its legend as perhaps the most magnificent science fiction film ever made.

Kubrick and legendary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke adapt Clarke’s short story with ambitious vision, epic scope, precise execution. More than a film, 2001 transcends the screen to become a mind-bending look at “first contact” that elicits levels of awe and wonder reserved for timeless pieces of art.

Very simply. 2001 is essential cinema of the highest order.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8TABIFAN4o

1. William Friedkin: The Exorcist (1973)/ Killer Joe (2011)

The Exorcist
Thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this impossible situation.

Friedkin balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre. Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.

Killer Joe
Following a long, fairly quiet period, in 2011 Friedkin returned with something bold and nasty:Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular killer, a predator in a cowboy hat making deals with some Texas white trash. The deal goes haywire, and some crazy, mean, vividly depicted shit befalls those unthinking trailer folk.

Subdued, charming, merciless, weird, and oh-so-Southern, Joe scares the living hell out of any thinking person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really describe the Smiths – an exquisitely cast Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, and a flawless Gina Gershon. This is an ugly and unsettlingly funny film about compromises, bad ideas, and bruised women. And it is the best thing Friedkin has done since The Exorcist.

 

 





High Society

High-Rise

by Hope Madden

Set inside a skyscraper in a gloriously retro London, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is a dystopia full of misanthropic humor.

Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates his own story of life inside the “grand social experiment” – a high rise where the higher the floor, the higher the tenant’s social status. Laing lives keenly alone, somewhere in the middle floors. Socialite Charlotte (a fantastic Sienna Miller) lives one floor above; put upon wife and philandering husband Helen and Wilder (Elizabeth Moss and Luke Evans, respectively) live near the bottom. And at the tippy top, The Architect (Jeremy Irons, magnificent as always).

The film treads some of the same ground as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, only Ballard’s feelings were less respectful of the lowly. The author’s interest was always in peeling that last layer that separates civility from savagery in every member of every class. No one is blameless, no one is incorruptible. It can make his material difficult because no character is entirely sympathetic, which is certainly the case in High-Rise.

Our protagonist holds himself at a distance from all tenants, seeing himself as that singular soul that can fit almost anonymously within every strata, when, in fact, he fits nowhere. And as chaos descends and carnality and carnage, it’s very hard to decide whether anyone is worth rooting for.

The film brings to mind David Cronenberg’s gem, Shivers. The Canadian auteur’s first film saw a high end high rise taken down from within by a parasite that turned its victims into voracious pleasure seekers. Always the Ballard enthusiast (Cronenberg adapted the author’s Crash into a chilly NC-17 adaptation in 1996), the filmmaker’s 1975 flick eerily predicted the British cult novelist’s plot of the same year.

High-Rise’s performances range from slyly understated (Hiddleston, Moss) to powerful (Miller, Evans) to alarmingly hammy (James Purefoy), but each contributes entertainingly to this particular brand of dystopia.

Ballard’s prose is tough to bring to life on the big screen. While Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation breathed the author’s chilly, disgusted detachment, Wheatley’s version mines Ballard’s humor in a film that is wildly alive but terrifically flawed.

The class war has not waned since Ballard set its microcosm inside his London skyscraper. Its flame burns as bright and toxic today as it ever has, but somehow Wheatley’s film lacks that heat. It’s a fascinating mess without the punch of relevance.

Still, the wicked humor and wild chaos will certainly keep your attention.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Fright Club: Best David Cronenberg Horror Films

It’s the New Year, so high time we got back to our celebration of our favorite filmmakers. Today we troll through the career of the great David Cronenberg, king of corporeal horror. He’s gone on to create some of the most thought-provoking and wonderful non-genre films of the last twenty years, including the masterpiece Eastern Promises, plus the darkly brilliant Maps to the Stars, A History of Violence, and so many more. His vision is uniquely his own, mixing a Big Brother skepticism with a fascination with technology, media, and human anatomy. He brings an often overlooked but wicked humor to most everything.

Cronenberg has directed 8 true horror films, and we found it nearly impossible to leave three films off this list. No individual countdown was rewritten more than this one. As you bitch to yourself about the omissions – and you almost certainly will do that – please know that we deeply love the three films we left off our list of the Top 5 David Cronenberg Horror Films.

For the full podcast, plus George’s gripes about the final 5, go HERE.

5. Shivers (They Came from Within) (1975)

In an upscale Montreal high rise, an epidemic is breaking out. A scientist has created an aphrodisiac in the form of a big, nasty slug. That slug, though, spreads wantonness throughout the high rise and threatens to overrun the city with its lusty ways.

Not Cronenberg’s best film, but this is his first feature length horror and it announces not only his arrival on the genre scene, but it predicts so many of the films to come. The film obsesses over human sexuality, social mores, the physical form, physical violation and infestation, medical science, conspiracy, and free will. He’d revisit all of these preoccupations throughout his career, most obviously in his very next feature film, 1978’s Rabid, which is weirdly similar in every way.

Shivers takes a zombie concept and uses it to pervert expectations. (See what we did there?) They’re not here to eat your brains, after all. It’s the first film where Cronenberg marries ideas of the repugnant with the pleasurable, medical monstrosity with human body. It would be several years before his skill with performances (or maybe casting) matched his other directorial talents, but Shivers is still a worthwhile, utterly bizarre pleasure.

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

One of the rare films Cronenberg directs but doesn’t write, The Dead Zone puts the words of Stephen King in the filmmaker’s hands. The Canadian is matched in weirdness by his lead, Christopher Walken, who plays a schoolteacher stricken with the gift to see the past and future through touch. When Walken realizes that his visions have a “dead zone” – meaning that he can change the future – the plot really begins to quicken.

Martin Sheen chews scenery as a presidential candidate who actually seems far more run of the mill by today’s standards. In fact, Greg Stillson may be too low key for today’s primaries. But back in ’83, such was not the case, and Walken’s blandly named Johnny Smith has to put his money where his gift of touch is if he wants to change an ugly future.

Cronenberg seems unusually hampered by the script, but somehow the way he manages still to focus on what’s weird rather than what’s obvious in the story elevates the film beyond its plot. No character is entirely sympathetic – a hallmark of the filmmaker’s work – and everyone has a bit of the bizarre about him or her, which the movie seeks to expose.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmC5oPc7L3M

3. Scanners (1981)

This was the one that made Cronenberg an international name in the genre.

As always, Michael Ironside seeps with psychotic menace, this time as Darryl Revok, a “scanner” looking to take control of his mind-blowing ESP-born gifts.

In truth, the film is about mind control – a very sloppy version of it – and that societal fear of being dominated by a stronger being. At its heart, this is another government conspiracy film wherein an agency foolishly believes they can harness an uncontrollable element for military purposes. Scanners is hardly the best of these (Alien is, FYI). But it’s gory fun nonetheless. What makes the effort undeniably Cronenberg (besides the exploding heads) is that connection between human tissue and technology.

The acting is silly, the technology is comically dated, and the computer nerd toward the end of the film inexplicably boasts a band aid on his face. But Ironside is on fire and the movie ratchets up tension by keeping you wondering when the next head will explode.

2. Videodrome (1983)

As bizarre as anything he ever made – even CosmopolisVideodrome shows an evolution in Cronenberg’s preoccupations with body horror, media, and technology as well as his progress as a filmmaker.

James Woods plays sleazy TV programmer Max Renn, who pirates a program he believes is being taped in Malaysia – a snuff show, where people are slowly tortured to death in front of viewers’ eyes. But it turns out to be more than he’d bargained for. Corporate greed, zealot conspiracy, medical manipulation all come together in this hallucinatory insanity that could only make sense with Cronenberg at the wheel.

Deborah Harry co-stars, and Woods shoulders his abundant screen time quite well. What? James Woods plays a sleaze ball? Get out! Still, he does a great job with it. But the real star is Cronenberg, who explores his own personal obsessions, dragging us willingly down the rabbit hole with him. Long live the new flesh!

1. Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Because of patient vulnerability, doctors who lose it are always scary, and Dead Ringers exploits that discomfort brilliantly, partly because the doctors are gynecologists, and folks tend to feel pretty vulnerable in their hands to start with.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performance you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg. He brings together sexuality and mutation in a film that is perhaps more tender than anything he’d ever done, but at the same time more wickedly funny and physically uncomfortable than the balance of his work.

Cronenberg had recently shared his most famous mad scientist with the world in his exceptional remake of The Fly. With Dead Ringers, he returns to the world of a damaged scientific genius run amuck and soars once again.





Fright Club: Best Canadian Horror

There are thousands of horror films that can be called Canadian horror, in that so many movies are filmed in Canada. But we weren’t looking for Hollywood on the cheap. No, we wanted to celebrate the subversive yet polite genre filmmaking flowing from the Canucks themselves. We were looking for films made by Canadians in Canada.

We didn’t want to zero in on just one guy, either. There are so many films by David Cronenberg that could have made the list (indeed – maybe he deserves an entire podcast?!), but we limited ourselves to one so that we could celebrate some of the horror variety you can find bundled up in America’s Hat.

5. Bloody Knuckles (2014)

Canadian writer/director Matt O’s Bloody Knuckles offers a gloriously nasty, Troma-esque mash note to freedom of speech.

Pasty malcontent Travis (Adam Boys) writes the underground comic series Vulgarian Invasions. One inflammatory comic book too many lands him on the hit list of local thug Leonard Fong, who saws off his disrespectful drawing hand. But even if Travis is ready to surrender, that dismembered appendage is not.

The effort and tone are reminiscent of the bargain basement horror comedies of Frank Henenlotter (think Frankenhooker) – good-natured but wildly tasteless. Unlike Henenlotter or the Troma films O so clearly admires, Bloody Knuckles has a point to make. Art should be dangerous. Safety is the refuge of the cowardly.

Most faults can be forgiven this film, especially if you pine for the silly fun of low-budget horror of a bygone time. Or if you just really like free speech.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwvjfv6C_Qs

4. American Mary

Twin sisters, Canadians, and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you don’t want to piss off.

The Soskas’ screenplay is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. They also prove skilled at drawing strong performances across the board. Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. Antonio Cupo also impresses as the unexpectedly layered yet certainly creepy strip club owner.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

3. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

What Natali was able to accomplish within the limitations he has – startlingly few sets, a very small cast, a 20 day shoot schedule – is astounding. An effective use of FX, true visual panache, and a handful of well-conceived death sequences elevate this far above Saw and many other films with ten times the budget.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37EjGw7jV98

2. Ginger Snaps (2000)

Sisters Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).

On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches. Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore – kind of A Canadian Werewolf in High School, if you will.

1. Videodrome (1983)

Yes, there are many, many Cronenberg films that could have taken this or any other spot on the countdown. Videodrome was the last true horror and truly Canadian film in his arsenal, and it shows an evolution in his preoccupations with body horror, media, and technology as well as his progress as a filmmaker.

James Woods plays sleazy TV programmer Max Renn, who pirates a program he believes is being taped in Malaysia – a snuff show, where people are slowly tortured to death in front of viewers’ eyes. But it turns out to be more than he’d bargained for. Corporate greed, zealot conspiracy, medical manipulation all come together in this hallucinatory insanity that could only make sense with Cronenberg at the wheel.

Deborah Harry co-stars, and Woods shoulders his abundance screen time quite well. What? James Woods plays a sleaze ball? Get out! Still, he does a great job with it. But the real star is Cronenberg, who explores his own personal obsessions, dragging us willingly down the rabbit hole with him. Long live the new flesh!

Listen to the whole conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Hatin’ on Hollywood

Maps to the Stars

by Hope Madden

Who but David Cronenberg could take the bubbling Hollywood cesspool that is Maps to the Stars and create from it a chilly but fascinating snapshot of industry dysfunction?

The truth is that Bruce Wagner’s screenplay requires Cronenberg’s anthropological approach and perverse sense of humor. Without it, he’s written a vulgar soap opera. With it, he’s written a revoltingly compelling, oddly austere essay on the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, fraudulent, repugnant, insecure insanity that is Hollywood.

The story itself couldn’t be more lurid, which is why Cronenberg’s peculiarly distant style is so effective. Some elements of his direction have changed little since he was bursting heads in Scanners.

What has changed over the decades is his ability to draw talent to his projects, and few of his casts have been as stocked as this one. The great (and finally Academy-acknowledged) Julianne Moore steals every scene as the prototypical damaged, aging starlet. Needy, vulnerable, charming and venomous – Moore hits every note on time and in tune.

The versatile Mia Wasikowska – who played Moore’s daughter in The Kids are All Right – here plays her newly hired personal assistant, or “chore whore” as she so delightfully puts it. Wasikowska’s Agatha is the vehicle for chaos in the film, although given the temperament and predilections of the characters involved, chaos is probably never far away.

Agatha wants to make amends for something she did to her family (Olivia Williams, Evan Bird and a gleefully toxic John Cusack) – something related, we assume, to the scarring on her face and neck. Meanwhile, she falls for a sweet but opportunistic limo driver (Cronenberg favorite Robert Pattinson).

Though the actions, reactions and eventualities are never entirely clear, there’s nothing convoluted about this film. Behaviors and reactions feel insane but never ridiculous, as if every self-serving act – no matter how vile – feels natural in this hotbed.

Maps to the Stars is unforgiving, yet somehow weirdly watchable. Cronenberg’s films can be a challenge – not that they’re necessarily tough to understand, just sometimes tough to stomach. Maps to the Stars is certainly not his most violent, although the violence here is tough and surprising. What makes his latest so startling is that, though these characters are as horrid as those found in his best horror and SciFi, they belong right here in our own world.

No wonder he makes independent films.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





Halloween Countdown, Day 24

American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Rex Reed said of American Mary, “The acting is uniformly dreadful. The level of incompetence in both writing and direction is a scream.”

Rex Reed is high. You should see American Mary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. As the film opens, Mary is a character on the verge. The Soska sisters deftly explore that moment, full of anxiety and thrill, where anything could happen. This being horror, though, it doesn’t all go quite as well as Mary originally hoped.

The Soskas’ screenplay is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. They also prove skilled at drawing strong performances across the board. Antonio Cupo, in particular, impresses as the unexpectedly layered yet certainly creepy strip club owner.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that  pays off.

The images are bright, crisp and classy and at the same time so very wrong – just like Mary. Like fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, the Soskas care not for traditional scares, preferring unsettling images and nightmarish circumstances. And though the film owes a debt to Cronenberg – particularly his magnificent corporeal nightmare Dead Ringers – it certainly carves out its own niche in the bodily horror genre.

The film is an accomplished effort from the relative newcomers. Stylish and fresh, smart and creepy, it’s an excellent addition to any Halloween viewing.





Countdown: Congrats, it’s Twins!

This weekend marks the Twinsburg, OH twin festival. We have a particular weakness for the idea of this festival, and for films about twins, likely because Hope is a twin and her sister is bat-shit insane. She’s a vicious, hard-hearted killer. Wherever she goes, carnage follows.

We’re lying. She’s a lovely person, as are George’s twin sisters (see the unfortunate haircut pic below).

twins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve noticed that a lot of onscreen twins are not so nice, though. Here are some of our favorites.

Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong. Because of patient vulnerability, doctors who lose it are always scary, and Dead Ringers exploits that discomfort brilliantly. Irons brings such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to his performance you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

Twin Falls Idaho (1999)

This is a lovely, haunting film clearly informed by Cronenberg’s twin flick, but the result is both slyer and more vulnerable. Written by, directed by and starring twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, the film settles into a rundown motel where conjoined brothers seek their estranged mother, befriend a prostitute, attend a Halloween party, and separate to contend with the lonesome reality of individuality. It’s a hypnotic, weird but lovely ride.

The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime. It’s rural 1930s, and Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch who’s been trying to run the farm since her son’s death last summer, is troubled. Sweet Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland. Holland’s the rascal and Niles is always worried about his mischief getting them into trouble. So, Ada worries about Niles, Niles keeps himself busy around the farm, and bodies pile up like lumber. Mulligan twists to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmMqWkudgA

Basket Case (1982)

When super wholesome teen Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous NY flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, and it’s the lowlifes, thugs, and derelicts in his building who are in real jeopardy. Belial is in the basket. He’s Duane’s formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmLKrxR6H0

Stuck On You (2003)

Not all twin films are dark, brooding or horrifying. Stuck on You, for instance, follows a pair of amazingly well adjusted conjoined twins – optimistic ladies’ man Walt (Greg Kinnear) and supportive wallflower Bob (Matt Damon) – who decide to move to LA to follow Walt’s dream of acting. Expect Farrelly brother silliness, a good heart, fun cameos, and excellent onscreen chemistry from the twins.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=At-LrR-vqUk





Scary-Movie-a-Day Guide to October! Day 25: Slither

Slither (2006)

Writer/director James Gunn took the best parts of B-movie Night of the Creeps and David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within, mashing the pieces into the exquisitely funny, gross and terrifying Slither.

A Troma alum with writing credits ranging from Scooby-Do movies to the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Gunn possessed all the raw materials to pull it off. The film is equal parts silly and smart, grotesque and endearing, original and homage. More importantly, it’s just plain awesome.

Cutie pie Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is having some marital problems. Her husband Grant (the great horror actor Michael Rooker) is at the epicenter of an alien invasion. Smalltown sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) tries to set things straight as a giant mucous ball, a balloonlike womb-woman, a squid monster, projectile vomit, zombies, and loads and loads of slugs keep the action really hopping.

The cast is superb, especially Gregg Henry as foul mouthed Mayor MacReady. It helps that he gets all the best lines. Like, “If this shit’s contagious and I turn into a fucking mollusk, I’m going to sue those bastards!”

Gunn lifts certain scenes – the best scenes – directly from both the Cronenberg and the lesser Creeps effort, but never steals. His film brims with affectionate nods, including the great early scene where white trash Margaret sits on her couch with her toddler watching Troma’s classic Toxic Avenger. Classy, mom!

Consistently funny, cleverly written, well paced, tense and scary and gross – Slither has it all. Watch it. Do it!